Little did I know that leaving New York City during COVID-19 lockdown would bring me and my camera face-to-face with wild foxes.
There is a common understanding that foxes are harmless to humans, but people still fear the shrewd animals that can kill your chickens and birds. Most people pay less attention to the fact that they keep the rodent population under control.
Within the literary universe, the story is different. There, foxes are a symbol of many positive qualities, including wisdom and nobility.
In 1943, the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had a fox teach the meaning of friendship to the Little Prince in his famous children’s book, describing how humans are responsible for what they tame.
Much more recently, in 2013, Norwegian brothers Vegard and Bård Ylvisåker of the comedy group Ylvis produced a song called “The Fox,” and their video quickly went viral, helping to foster positive feelings towards the furry, red animal.
Their video has racked up more than one billion views on YouTube, and sales of fox costumes during Halloween soared the year after it was released.
A few years later, kids had fun asking automatic bots like Siri, “What does the fox say?”, and laughing as they heard absurd responses.
COVID-19 brought me, a city boy, face-to-face with foxes.
Living in New York City, I had never encountered a real fox. But then the pandemic came, and with it lockdown, and we fled our rather small apartment to a country house a couple of hours away. It was like paradise, being in the middle of nowhere, in close touch with nature.
Along with the pleasure of enjoying clean air and green surroundings, we got a close-up view of a variety of wild animals, including bears, deer, rabbits, birds and, most notably, foxes.
The first time I spotted them at the edge of our backyard, it was a real surprise. I couldn’t take a photo as they move very fast and I was not prepared. I was not expecting to see a wild animal so close. And I was relaxing at home, not pumped up with the adrenaline that usually drives me when shooting a professional photo assignment.
But I felt immediately challenged by the unexpected situation. Even if it was not strictly speaking work, I felt I had to take a decent photo of the unusual scene, if only to hang it on my wall or share with my friends on social media.
Sometimes things done out of pure personal pleasure can grow into a project with professional relevance.
The real treat was watching the fox kits.
I guessed the fox would eventually return, so I prepared a camera with a very long lens and had it ready next to a window. Indeed, it came back, but again it was not easy to get a photo — the timeframe was very short, and at the slightest noise, the fox would run away.
It was frustrating. By the time I spotted the animal, it was only a matter of seconds before it disappearsed.
Eventually I noticed the foxes seemed to follow a favorite path. So I left a window open to be ready without making any noise, and a couple of days later patience and preparedness paid off.
The key was to have a camera ready, with a monopod to support a long telephoto lens and with high speed settings prepared to freeze the action. After a few failed attempts, I was finally able to photograph a beautiful, red fox appearing briefly some 30 yards away.
But the real treat came later that week when to my surprise I got the privilege of watching her breastfeeding her three cubs for a few minutes. The next day, I saw her little kits playing in our backyard, and it was fascinating to see them smelling flowers.
A very simple secret
That reminded me of the story of Ferdinand, the bull that preferred to sit by a cork tree and smell flowers instead of fighting in a bullfight.
The poetic scene evoked Saint-Exupéry’s fox revealing his secret to the Little Prince: “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
We have a lot to learn from wild animals. Taking these photos reminded me of a quote from another famous Frenchman, the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who mastered the concept of capturing the decisive moment. “To photograph is to put on the same line of sight the head, the eye and the heart.”
It is not easy. But when it happens, it brings rewards.
Three questions to consider:
- Has COVID-19 allowed you to make new discoveries?
- Do you think that the coronavirus pandemic will lead to changes in the way humans interact with nature?
- Why do the foxes make the author think of Ferdinand the bull?
Enrique Shore is a News Decoder correspondent, photographer and pictures editor with three decades experience covering World Cups, Olympics, presidential elections, summits and the first Gulf War. He was Reuters chief photographer for Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, then based in Madrid in charge of the Iberian Peninsula. He later looked after media clients in Spain and Portugal. He is currently an independent photographer, editor and consultant based in New York.